North Carolina could see fewer hits like Iron Man 3 or Homeland filmed in the state. That’s because tax incentives that encourage the film industry to make movies here are set to expire in January. Some lawmakers are trying to pass a measure that would give grants to the film industry to keep production companies here. But while budget negotiations are underway, time is running out to pass legislation.
In the Hunger Games, the dystopian teenage blockbuster, main characters Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark are introduced by a horsedrawn carriage into a coliseum teeming with people. Peeta tells Katniss they should hold hands and raise them for the crowd.
Peeta says, "Come on, they’ll love it," and when they raise their hands, the crowd cheers.
That grand coliseum, in real life, was an abandoned cigarette plant in Concord, North Carolina.
“They had to close off all the drain grates because the horses could get their hooves caught in them,” said Steven Skinner, who worked on the set.
And the hundreds of thousands on the stands? Well, there actually weren’t that many people.
"So all the people in the stands, there's a big green screen behind it, and that's something else that riggers would do, put up green screens behind all of the extras that were in the stands," Skinner said. "So I was the one in charge of lighting with the electricians and everything."
Incentives That Will Soon Sunset
Skinner lives in Wilmington, and he is one of more than 4,000 people in North Carolina who are employed by the film industry, says Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo.
"We would like to invite the governor down to Wilmington to take a look at the permanent jobs that are already in place there, as well as the infrastructure and the investment that has been made in the Wilmington area," Saffo said.
Saffo came to Raleigh this week, as lawmakers are in the middle of state budget negotiations, to ask for incentives that are set to expire in January.
He cites a study commissioned by the film industry that says productions raked in 25 million dollars for North Carolina in 2012. Saffo and others are asking budget writers to extend the incentives for a year so General Assembly staff can gauge their success.
"If the incentive goes away, the industry will go to states who are offering the incentives," said Rep. Susi Hamilton (D-Wilmington). "Most probably go immediately to Georgia and South Carolina and then on to Louisiana."
New Proposals For Incentives
But skeptics say the current package favors temporary jobs and not enough long-term investment. Americans For Prosperity, the conservative political group, has made a little production of its own and put it on the radio.
"While you're working hard and sending too much of your paycheck to Raleigh," the ad says, "Hollywood special interests lobbyists are pressuring lawmakers to maintain unfair tax carve outs for film production."
State lawmakers say North Carolina gets some returns from film production. McCrory has proposed scaling back and setting up a combination of credits and tax exemptions.
Senator Bill Rabon is a Republican from Southport, which has been the setting for movies such as A Walk To Remember and I Know What You Did Last Summer. He’s advocating for a 20 million dollar grant program, which is less than what Democratic representatives are asking for.
"It's sort of like a Christmas wish. What you'd like to have for Christmas, and what you can realistically get for Christmas. It's certainly a lot nicer to have something under the tree than nothing," Rabon says.
People who work in North Carolina’s film industry say they’ll continue lobbying for production companies to stay. Steven Skinner, the guy who worked on the Hunger Games, says he went to U-N-C Wilmington and stayed because of his job.
"So what? It's been 20 years now? It's all I've done," Skinner says. "It's what I know how to do."
Skinner got his start doing the lights on a 1990s court room drama that was set in Wilmington and featured North Carolina native Andy Griffith. Remember Matlock?